The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group this month introduce a new column series called “Emerging Leaders” that focuses on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this first installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Jamie Liebich, dairy category director for Topco. Sorensen’s questions are in bold.
Jamie, congratulations on your new role as the director of the dairy category at Topco. I know your experiences and insight will help provide a pathway for those who follow behind you in this industry. Tell me a little bit about you and what you like to do with your time away from the office.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and now live in Chicago with my husband Kyle and my three girls, Karsyn (12), Kaylin (10) and Kendall (2). I’ve been a grocery geek since I was 15 and got my first job at the local Piggly Wiggly. Much of my time away from the office is spent at softball fields or basketball and volleyball courts coaching or cheering on my daughters. My family and I also love to spend as much time as we can in Clearwater Beach, Florida.
Please provide a brief description of Topco.
Topco Associates is a privately held, member-owned company that provides aggregation, innovation and knowledge management solutions for our leading food industry member-owners and customers, including retailers, wholesalers, foodservice and pharmacy companies. Topco leverages collective volume, knowledge and commitment of these companies to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace with reduced costs and innovative own brand solutions.
What is your role at Topco? Responsibilities?
My role at Topco is dairy category director with responsibility for 18 dairy categories, including true dairy items like milk, cheese and yogurt, along with other categories sold in the dairy department like eggs, juice and margarine. My primary responsibility at Topco is to provide leadership to the dairy team to ensure we deliver the best own-brand programs from a quality, service and cost perspective. I’ve got a great team of folks that work on behalf of Topco members.
What was your career path to this position?
Before college, I spent several years working at Piggly Wiggly and Jewel-Osco. After college, I did market research for an insurance company, but the insurance industry just wasn’t appealing to me. In 2003, I joined Topco in an entry-level role in the dairy department. Over the next 10 years I worked really hard, was promoted several times—each time with more responsibility. I was fortunate to be in a role that allowed me to learn many different aspects of the business, including sales/business development, marketing, new product development and category management.
In 2013, I was recruited away from Topco for an opportunity that was risky, but very intriguing. Very shortly after leaving Topco, I realized that the opportunity I left for wasn’t quite what I had expected, and within two months I was searching for something new. I found a business development role with the Midwest Dairy Association, working for dairy farmers, where I had the chance to work with retailers and dairy manufacturers across the Midwest to increase consumer demand for dairy.
After almost five years away from Topco, I found myself missing the own brand retail world I grew up in. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and one day my phone rang and it was an old colleague from Topco asking me if I’d consider coming back. That was a few months ago, and here I am today, so excited to be back “home” at Topco.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
The grocery industry is full of brilliant people who have spent their career growing the industry to what it is today. Their wisdom is irreplaceable; however, the world today is so different than it used to be. Shoppers and consumers have changed and have different expectations of retailers and brands. We have an opportunity to bring new talent to the industry to introduce them to the world we fell in love with. The grocery industry is very demanding and fast-paced, so we need to embrace the young talent joining our organizations and help others to see how much fun we have.
In previous discussions we’ve had, I’ve heard you reference Topco’s emphasis on developing future leadership. Tell me a little more about that.
One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed since I’ve rejoined Topco is the heightened focus on identifying future leaders early on in their career. Topco is focused on being engaged with employees to understand their future desires along with understanding where each employee’s strengths are by having career conversations with our associates and using our talent review process to identify high-potential talent. By identifying future leadership within the organization early, it provides an opportunity to expose employees to opportunities that will allow growth and help identify continued growth opportunities within the company. Topco has enhanced its learning and development offerings with onsite instructor-led training courses. Many of these offerings are available to our satellite offices and are also comparable to other industries.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry, either internally or externally?
I love when I have the opportunity to coach and mentor future leadership within Topco and within the industry as a whole. It’s fun to share my story and passion with them so they can see a future path for themselves. I’ve had a couple of great mentors throughout my career, and it is fun to be in a position now where I can help guide others.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
I’ve never done any “official” mentoring or coaching programs, but I look at every situation I’m in as one I can learn from or help others learn. The grocery industry isn’t run by any one single person, and there’s such a wealth of knowledge out there. I feel like it’s my duty to share my learnings with others as they develop their careers.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
I’d encourage them to take a close look at all the opportunities because it’s such a dynamic industry. There’s really something for everyone, no matter what your degree or previous experience is. In fact, I have a co-worker at Topco who was involved in the category management and procurement side of things for over 20 years. Just last year, she made the switch to IT—still within the grocery industry and still within Topco. I think it’s a testament to the variety of opportunities that this industry provides.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point that you found most helpful? Two or three points would be good.
• Life is too short to do something that you don’t enjoy, so follow your heart and your passion.
• Do what you say you are going to do, and if you end up not being able to fulfill your word, be upfront about it.
• Communication is the most important element of any situation; always make open communication your No. 1 priority.
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you, Topco and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
I’m so passionate about the grocery industry, and it’s so nice to be back at Topco. During my time away, I had some great opportunities to grow both personally and professionally, and I feel like these learnings have positioned me for success in my new category director role at Topco.